Pfc. Phil Eckhart of Maryland was a loader in the 712th Tank Battalion. He passed away in 1997, but left behind a story titled "My Army Life," adapted from a diary that he had kept during the war.
©2014, Aaron Elson
It was March the 10th of the year 1944 when I reported to Fort Mead for induction. In the three days we were there we really had the needles and papers thrown at us. On the third day we were put on a train, and no one knew where we were going. One night about 11 we reached Fort Knox, and they had sandwiches and coffee for us. The next morning we met our first sergeant, and what a fellow he was. Well, we had our first eight weeks of basic, and it was just about all infantry training. Dont let anyone tell you that you cant walk in mud and have dust blow in your face, because I have done it. When we finished our first eight weeks, we had a three-day pass. I was home for 31 hours, and it really went fast.
While I was at Knox I used to go to Louisville about every weekend. I used to sleep at the Baptist Dormitory, and get my meals there. There was another buddy of mine, and we used to both go there. There were several girls there, and we used to play games, sing, and have swell times together. I met a nice girl there, and we have been writing each other ever since I have been overseas. That has been near 18 months.
Well, it was the 22nd of July, and we had all graduated and were ready to head for home on furlough. I had 12 days at home, and took advantage of them all. I was to report to Fort Mead on the 5th of August, and that was on a Friday. My Mother, Father and Aunt went with me, and it was really hot. Well, I did not know how long I was going to be there, but I stayed for a month and two days. The next afternoon I was home on pass, as it only takes me an hour to get home from there. Well, I had a pass about every night, and since I had my car there, it did not take me long to get home.
We were told that we would be leaving on a Sunday around the end of August, and that we would get passes from Friday to Sunday morning 9 oclock. There was to be several fellows to stay there and work, and when they started to pass the passes out we were really sweating them out. Finally my name was called, and I went and got the car. There were several fellows going with me, and I had to wait for them. It was about 1:30 when we got away. Well, Sunday morning finally got there, and it was time to report back. My Mother, Father, Sisters, and cousin came in with me. It was kind of hard to do, but I said goodbye, and walked away with a big smile. I never knew if I would see those sweet faces again. We had to go for an examination, and it was about 11 or later when we finally got on trucks to go to the train. The next morning we were at the station in Shanks.
While I was there I called up home, and talked to the folks for a few minutes. It was really good to hear their voices once again. When I first came in the Army, my Aunt and Uncle had given me a pen, and when we were going over the obstacle course at Shanks I lost it. Well, I went and got permission to look for it, but no success. When the Lieutenant made a talk, I told him to tell the fellows that there was a five dollar reward out for a pen, and I got it back.
On the 10th of September, a nice Sunday night with the band playing, we prepared to get on the boat. We had the Red Cross meet us there with coffee and donuts, which helped a little. It was rather late when we got settled, and we were way down on E deck. In fact, I still have the ticket we had to have when we went to eat. The next morning the fellows said we were out on the ocean, but when we went to eat we saw that we were still in the same place we were when we got on.
We had orders to put on the life jackets whenever we left our quarters. That afternoon at about one we started to move. We were on our way. The little tugs pulled us out, and then we started on our own power. We could see the mines in the harbor, and as we came near the net they opened it for us to pass through. Finally everyone started to run to the port side, and I wondered what they saw. When I got there, I could see the Lady waving us goodbye, and I will be looking for her to welcome me back. I stood on the stern of the boat and watched her and the Empire State Building until they were out of sight. Then I turned and went to my quarters wondering if I would ever get the chance to see that sight again.
The weather was really nice, and the ride wasnt bad at all. I came over on the Ile de France, and we were alone. They said we could outrun any sub, and I was hoping they were right. You could stand at the stern, and see the course we were taking. We changed every five minutes. That was so the subs could not get their sights set on us. They say it takes one seven minutes to set their sights.
One morning when we got up, they said we had went out of our way, as there was a sub out there waiting for us. I sure was glad they found it out before it was too late.
We had some actors on the boat that were coming over to put on shows for the boys, and they put several on for us. The days soon went, and on the eighth day we spotted land. About 2 oclock we were in the cove near Glasgow, Scotland. We stayed on the boat until the next morning, and then we unloaded. That was the 20th of Sept. We got coffee and donuts before we got on the train, and headed for England.
It was really some pretty scenery as we went along in the train. There were flowers in about every back yard when we passed through a town. In the country all the fields were divided off by rock walls, and they really looked nice. As we were riding along, we would see rabbits playing in the field. They were really large, and seemed to be having a pretty nice time. Well, we slept sitting up that night, and just about at daybreak we arrived at Southampton, England. From there we went to the pier, and waited to get on the boat to cross the Channel. We had K rations to eat that morning, but before we got on the boat the Red Cross had coffee and donuts for us.
As we went aboard the boat they gave us life jackets, and said to have them with us at all times. They put us way down in the bottom of the boat, and at chow there were two men who were to go get the chow for each table. We had to eat and sleep in the same place, had to sleep in hammocks, and it was quite a job staying in one.
We moved out in the channel in the afternoon, and sat there all night. The next day we moved out for the French coast. It was on the 23rd of September that we got on the LTC boats and went in to the coast. Things really looked like there was a war going on. They had the barrage balloons all along the coast, and there were hardly any buildings still standing. We had to climb quite a hill, and I was glad when I was up it. Then we went to a town, about half a mile from the beach, and slept in a large field on the other side of it. There were two in a pup tent, and my buddy and I had our shelter halves with us, so we put ours up right away. That night the fellows who had theirs in their duffel bags had to wait for them, and then put them up in the rain.
There was a cow in the field, and it had been hit with artillery, as it had a large hole in its side. I was surprised to see it still walking around. As I had said, it had rained during the night, and you could see the water slushing around in the cows side as she walked. We had C rations to eat while we were there, and they really tasted good when you got good and hungry.
On the 26th we got on trucks and headed for a new area. We ended up sleeping in another field, but there were no cows. We saw several German graves here and there, and I was glad there were none of our boys. We had seen enough of our boys graves when we first hit the beach. The whole side of the hill was covered with white crosses.
On the 27th, we got on the train, and rode box cars for three days and three nights. There were 47 in a car, and we were really crowded. We had to eat C and K rations. As we would pass through a town, and sometimes stop at one, the French girls would give us apples, cider, bread, and sometimes they would throw us flowers. They seemed very friendly, and acted as though they were glad to see us.
When we got to St. Lo, we could see what the boys had gone through. I dont think there was one building that was not hit. As we passed through the small towns and over the countryside, you could see where the shells had been dropping, and the bombs falling. One time we went around a curve and saw a train off the track. It was a mail train, and had lots of mail on it. They said that it was for the boys up front. There were about three loads of German prisoners that passed us as we went on our way.
On the 30th of September we reached our destination, and was I glad. They told us we were in Fontainebleau.
We had to walk quite a ways to our quarters, but we finally got there. We were in a French college building, and it was pretty nice. As usual I was one of the lucky fellows to get on K.P. It was a snap, though, and I did not mind it at all. I had lots of time off between meals, and I used it to write some letters.
By the way, I received my first mail overseas that day. I received four letters. Well, that day went by pretty good, and I had a pretty nice nights sleep. Next morning I found myself on Battalion supply detail. Had a days work moving boxes here and there, and I really slept good that night. They gave me a steady detail the next day, there were three of us on it, and it was pretty good. Had to haul the trash from our place and one other place out in the woods and dump it. We never had to unload it as there were always French civilians out there to see what they could find. If the people in the States had to go through what those people did they would of known what war was.
On Sunday we had a break and I got a pass to town. It was a pretty good size town, and you could buy a good many things. I bought several trinkets, and sent them home. Also bought several apples, and they really tasted good for a change.
Well, it was Wednesday the 8th, and I was put on the alert. All of us that were on the alert went to the Officers quarters, and worked there that afternoon. Next morning we fell out with the others for training, came back in and were put on the alert again. That night at about 9:45 we got on trucks, and rode until 4 in the morning. We were in a French fort near Neufchateau, and it was really back in the woods. All that day we worked making beds, and cleaning the place up. It was all under the ground, and was rather damp. We had no lights, so we used gas in C ration cans. Had everything pretty well fixed up inside, so we started to haul bricks and fix the street. It took us several days to accomplish that, but it looked good when we did get it done. We used an old wagon to do it with, and had quite a bit of fun while we worked.
On Saturday and Sunday, the 21st and 22nd, I was on guard. One of my Fort Knox buddies was on with me. Sunday morning I took time out to wash and shave a little bit. We were there about three days, when they told us there would be shows. Had a movie set up way down under the ground, and there was plenty of room for all. They put me on as corporal of the guard of the third relief on the 1st of November. The communication wire had been cut in several places, and we had to put a guard out there. It was quite some distance from the camp, and they thought maybe some Germans were still around. That night it started to rain, and the boys did not have their raincoats with them. Since it was my relief, I took them out to them.
On the 6th of November they said we would be leaving at 1 oclock. I was just about to leave when they ran up and handed me a package. It was the pen I had sent for. When I had lost my pen I wrote and told my Aunt; when I left Shanks I did not have time to let her know I found my other one. So now I have two of them.
We got on the trucks and rode to a place near Metz. We slept in a large shed that night, but really had some good chow before we went to bed. The next day, which was Thursday the 9th of Nov., we moved in the barracks. That night we went to the show, and then had a good nights sleep. Next day we had a little road march, and were put on the alert when we got back. The next day, Marlene Dietrich was there, and we also had the Red Cross with donuts. We left the 53rd Repo Depo about 3 in the afternoon, and went to the 90th Infantry Division.
Next day was Sunday the 12th of Nov., and I went to church. We had some pretty good chow while we were there also. On Monday I had my watch fixed, as it had been broken since I left the States. That same day they took the fellows for the 712th to the Battalion. After we got there we were assigned to our company. I was assigned to A Company, and they were located in a barn right near the Moselle River.
That night I was on guard from 11 to 12. We slept in a barn, and I was kind of glad when morning came around. The fellows treated us newcomers pretty well, and soon we were just like one of them. We were with the maintenance tank and it was not up on the front. It was on the 14th that they made their crossing, and we were right behind them. Had to cross on a pontoon bridge, and it looked pretty shaky to me. We had a real smoke screen, and I was glad Jerry could not see us.
That night we slept in a house and listened to the shells going around us. Next morning we found out that one of them had knocked the back out of the house we were staying in. About 11 oclock they brought news that one of the tanks had been knocked out, and they wanted another one as soon as they could get it there. The lieutenant said I was to go in it as cannoneer, in other words I was the loader.
We moved out and soon came to where the other tank was hit. It was still burning when we went past. The German tank that had knocked it out was hit and burning also. Before we got up to the rest of the tanks the Germans started to throw artillery in. It was hitting pretty close and I was glad when it stopped coming in. When we caught up to the rest, they were in a town. There were lots of German prisoners walking up the street, and a good many already in the buildings under guard.
We pulled in alongside a church, and there was another tank right in front of us. The Germans started to throw artillery in and they hit the tank ahead of us on the track. They were still able to move, and we moved up the street and pulled in near a building. There was a German tank sitting up the street from us that the infantry had knocked out with a bazooka. That night they really threw the artillery in, and the next morning we saw that they had knocked our aerial off. We went in a store to look around and found lots of jelly, which really came in handy. I found a pair of baby caps there, and later on sent them home.